Tom VR: "I've listed the Korg ARP Odyssey on Gumtree three times, but I always come back to it"

Tom VR
(Image credit: Press/Tom VR)

Perfecting the balance between propulsion and emotion, Tom VR produces densely layered electronic music that’s saturated with feeling, but grounded in the rhythms of the club. 

Coloured with a melancholic tinge, his shimmering pads and soaring arpeggios are framed by fidgety, minimal beats, and embedded in subtle textures - field recordings, processed samples and static fuzz - that lend the music a sense of place and character. 

Over the past five years, Tom’s issued a series of releases across labels like All My Thoughts and Inter-Graded, all the while developing his own imprint, Valby Rotary, as a home for his own music and the work of likeminded artists. His latest full-length project is his most ambitious yet, transmuting the aesthetic he’s explored on earlier records into a 10-track statement that permeates the rhythmic frameworks of house music, trip-hop and D&B with colour, texture and vivid emotion. 

We caught up with Tom to hear more about the studio techniques and creative processes that went into the making of his latest record, Please Keep Shimmering. 

How and when did you first get into making music?

“I started making music in high school when I was about 14. They had this software for writing musical notation, and I would sometimes spend my breaks going and messing around with it in the library. I had no idea how to actually read music, but I just did everything by ear and process of elimination really. 

“I spent so much time doing it that I managed to complete about a term’s worth of work in advance for my music class, and then I just chilled mainly in the lessons and experimented on the keyboard and stuff. A friend in the same class used to make dubstep and taught me how to download FL Studio, which was basically the moment everything began.”

What gear were you using when you started?

“I used a laptop with Fruity Loops Studio 9, and some in-ear headphones.”

How does that compare to now - could you talk us through your current studio set-up?

“I currently use a Macbook, Korg ARP Odyssey, Minilogue, and a Yamaha Reface DX. Drum machines have come and gone too. I also predominantly use HD25s instead of monitors, but will always reference on as many monitors as I can and get in an actual studio in the final stages. 

“I still do a lot of work inside the box, probably down to the many years I poured into that first setup, but I think the addition of hardware synths has really helped my sound blossom in recent years and kept the spark alive for me.”

In terms of software tools, which plugins are essential to your workflow?

“I’m actually not that clued up when it comes to plugins, I guess some standout ones for me that I use all the time would be Valhalla Freq Echo (free, fun, and sounds great), and Klevgrand’s Ting (authentic and unique percussion samples, and it looks sick). In fact I like all of the Klevgrand stuff to be honest. I used to use Wolno a lot, which is a half-speed piano plug in from Felt Instruments. All of their stuff is really strange and beautiful.

“I have loads of saved effects chains that I use constantly, created by myself, so I always think about these like my main plugins in a way. I have one called Tom-Filter-1 which is a high-pass filter, a delay (with low delay times on the left and right), and a short decay reverb. 

"I often use this on breakdowns on loads of tracks at once. It almost sounds like the song is playing in a hallway or something. Like you briefly get a view from outside the universe of the song and you’re listening to it as an outsider for a few seconds. I like that a lot, it changes your perspective and always works to create tension in my opinion.”

What DAW are you using, and why did you choose it?

"Ableton, because when I first bought a MIDI keyboard it came with a free copy of Ableton Lite, which I then proceeded to use for a long time before upgrading. When I made the switch from FL Studio 9 to Ableton Lite I could only use eight tracks. So I used to make as much as I could on eight tracks, then bounce the whole song and load it into track one as audio, and wArite over the top. Then bounce and do it again over and over until I had nothing more to add. 

I still do a lot of work inside the box, but the addition of hardware synths has really helped my sound blossom in recent years, and kept the spark alive

“It was so inefficient, but I didn’t know any other method, and also kinda didn’t realise you could have loads of tracks. When I finally upgraded to Ableton Live 9 years later the ability to have unlimited tracks blew my mind and seriously led to a creative revelation for me. That method probably had a huge impact on the way I make music today.”

Are there one or two pieces of gear - instruments, synths, effects - that were fundamental to the making of Please Keep Shimmering in particular?

“The Korg ARP Odyssey and the Yamaha Reface DX. The Arp has been a really important part of the way I make music for years. It can be frustrating and I’ve listed it on Gumtree like three times but always come back to it and try harder to learn how to operate it which often creates better results. 

"I love making arpeggio patterns, and I find the ARP is amazing for that. It’s also great for these heavy anthemic drone-y bass sounds, which I love making these days. You can hear it being used for this type of sound on Soared Straight Through Me or Achemore.

“The DX is quite ‘menu-divey’ and requires patience but the ability to make these left-field weirdo patches is something I really love. Throughout the making of the album it enabled me to come up with a huge sound bank of saved patches that were truly my own, and I’d keep dipping into these when looking for pads etc. I think this helped tie the project together in a cohesive way, keeping the tracks in the same sonic environment.”

Could you talk us through a few influences - musical or otherwise - behind this latest project?

“I try not to listen to electronic music too much when I’m deep in a period of writing music. There is so much amazing electronic music to be influenced by and to compare myself to, and I think it can distort my vision. 

"In more recent years I seem to find myself getting my inspiration and energy from shoegaze-y metal stuff. I think it has this anthemic quality. It’s heavy but it’s also super beautiful and atmospheric. I find myself trying to recreate the feeling it gives me in my own music sometimes. Like this overwhelming feeling of emotion and energy at once. I find that inspiring.

I take a lot of influence from dreams and daydreaming. Getting lost and allowing your head to go elsewhere

“I’ve talked previously about how my job and other things affected me during a large portion of the album writing process, and my mental health in general throughout the last couple of years while balancing everything. In summary, the album itself was kind of a project that I was using to try and keep the flame of creativity alive during periods of tremendous burnout. 

"I was searching for inspiration in the process itself by just putting in hours and waiting for something to happen. Sometimes it’s like that. That’s kinda what the album represents in my opinion though. ‘Please Keep Shimmering’ - to me it’s a personal symbol of perseverance. Sitting tight and being patient while the flame dwindles and eventually grows again. It inevitably does.”

We can hear field recordings integrated into some tracks on Please Keep Shimmering. Are these your own recordings? Do they have any special significance? 

“I have a small bank of field recordings that I’ve built out over the years. They’re nothing major and definitely very DIY, but I like to use them a lot in my music as it feels personal to me, and also grounds everything in the same universe. The recordings in the track October were from Leeds. I used to go to the canal early in the morning in spring and record the water and ducks etc, for a project. 

"I also overlaid a recording of a crank turning when someone was adjusting one of the locks in summer. The recordings at the end of Keep Shimmering I took in Tokyo (I used these in my first album too), and the recordings in Blue Sky Revival are from a friend outside a pub in London.”

We also wanted to ask about the vocal samples on tracks like Soared Straight Through Me - are these recorded yourself or sampled from elsewhere?

“The Soared vocals are sampled from an a capella cover I had on my computer. My process is quite patchwork-y and all over the place so I’ll often draw random audio files from my computer into projects and manipulate, warp, abandon, and pick up months later. I like doing that as I just end up with weirder results. Like I think those vocals are strange, but that’s nice to me.

“Elsewhere on the album I’ve sampled stuff from films. There’s a great film scene where the protagonist is speaking to themselves in the mirror, and I’ve manipulated this for breathing and gasping sounds. 

"Some of the vocals on Partner are actually my own too. In my music vocals aren’t really used as a front running element of any song. They are woven in, and are way more fleeting. More of a decorative sprinkle to add to the overall impact of the piece.”

To my ears, there’s a hazy, dreamlike sound to the record - everything sounds a little overdriven, really warm and full of character. Can you think of any aspect of your process that might be contributing to this? 

“I don’t feel like there is anything I’m purposefully doing. It may just be something lost deep within the process that I’m not even registering. I definitely gravitate towards that kind of sound though. I don’t really do much of the abrasive, metallic, cold thing. 

I’ll pick a random project that I ditched months back and export it, drag it into a new project and manipulate it, then work on top of that. Almost like starting with a sample, but it’s my own discarded material

“I agree with the record having a dreamlike atmosphere. I take a lot of influence from dreams and daydreaming. Getting lost and allowing your head to go elsewhere. So I think that’s a feeling I try to aim for sometimes. Occasionally when I feel my creativity is waning or I can’t seem to write, I’ll create ambient loops and just zone out for ages. Sometimes I’ll meditate. 

"Then, down the line I’ll always resample these loops by dragging and dropping them into more conventional projects and just pitch them to fit the key. Having them just running in the background alongside pads, or just subtly in the mix. Maybe this helps.

Did you mix and master the album yourself? 

“I mixed the album myself. I think that it’s part of the creative process for me. The album was mastered by Moomin.”

How do you usually start a track?

“I will often just pick a random project that I ditched months back and export it, drag it into a new project and manipulate it, then work on top of that. Almost like starting by messing around with a sample, but it’s my own discarded material. Recycling my old ideas and then building on top of them, that’s usually my process.”

The album itself was a project that I was using to try and keep the flame of creativity alive during periods of tremendous burnout

Conversely, how do you know when something’s finished?

“I sit with things for a long time and reflect as much as possible. It can sometimes be for months. I think for me this has become a necessary part of the overall process. These days I really want to be sure of what I’m sharing with the world.”

We enjoyed the Kareem Ali remix of Soared Straight Through Me - do you have any more remixes lined up? 

“Yes, three more from the album and it’s going to be released as a package. Genuinely so excited about this and will share more on it soon.”

If you could collaborate with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?

“Chino Moreno of Deftones.”

What’s next for you now the album’s been released? 

“I’ve been taking some time away from music to reflect and breathe, but getting back on top of everything now. Got one record lined up that I’m working on at the moment and a collaborative record with Louf on our label Valby Rotary.”

Tom VR’s latest album, Please Keep Shimmering, is out now on All My Thoughts.

Matt Mullen
Tech Features Editor

I'm the Tech Features Editor for MusicRadar, working on everything from artist interviews to tech tutorials. I've been writing about (and making) electronic music for over a decade, and when I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, carefully crafting the beginnings of another project that I'll ultimately abandon to the creative graveyard that is my overstuffed hard drive.

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